When Renee Erickson opened her first French-inspired restaurant in Seattle, Boat Street Café, she was barely out of college, winging it in a major way with the support of friends and family, but not much else. Fast forward a few decades, and she has become a cornerstone of Seattle's food scene, with a James Beard Award and heaping platefuls of national accolades.
Her restaurants — The Whale Wins, The Walrus and the Carpenter, Bateau, and Bar Melusine, plus the bar Barnacle and the doughnut shop General Porpoise — are musts for any food-inspired Seattle visitor. People come for the décor as much as the food. Always bright and airy, with pretty bold colors and whimsical touches, Renee's spots are an extension of her eye for design. (She was an art major, obviously.)
In her home kitchen, the same aesthetic reigns. Whether it's handpicked antique bone-handled knives from an antique show in France or vintage plates from eBay, each item in Renee's kitchen radiates beauty without feeling precious or contrived. We snuck into her kitchen to find out how she does it at home.
A Visit with Renee Erickson (& Arlo) in Seattle
When it comes to cooking at home, Renee Erickson, the crowned queen of the Seattle restaurant scene, is the opposite of regal — especially when you spend some time in her cozy craftsman house, where she lives with her husband, Dan, and her sweet dog Arlo.
Her recently updated kitchen is all about functionality. Commonly used items like plates, silverware, pots, knives, and utensils are all within an arm's reach. She keeps her garden full of fresh herbs, so it's always easy to add bright, fresh flavor to last-minute meals.
When she entertains, she loves to host big parties outdoors, so her kitchen spills into the backyard, where a giant marble slab table beckons anyone with a glass of rosé to come, sit, chat.
Lucky for us, she's always happy to talk kitchen strategy.
What were you looking for more of when you redesigned your kitchen?
The kitchen is at the back of the house, and before, it was a little dark. I wanted more light, and fresh air from operable windows, which we achieved by adding three entirely new windows.
I also wanted a lot of storage, but because I tend to keep stacks and stacks of plates on hand for parties, I needed shelving that was sturdy, as well as beautiful.
Plus, I had almost no counter space before. Switching to under-counter refrigerator and freezer space gave me more space to cook.
You've obviously learned how to take advantage of small spaces, the way every chef must in a restaurant kitchen.
Absolutely. My most recent obsession is my pot rack, which is new. It was made by our friend Chris Freed, from Salty Bicycle, here in Seattle. He's so talented — he has made a lot of custom pieces for us at our Capitol Hill restaurants, as well as the amazing steel and marble table in my backyard. Anyway, I love that the rack feels like a butcher's rail built for pots. The hooks are custom, too, separated into three so that some are easy for me to reach, but so that my husband, who is tall, won't hit his head. The brass will age really beautifully, too.
As a restaurant cook, do you use things regular home cooks don't use?
Even when I cook for a crowd, I'm not interested in turning my kitchen into a restaurant. I always rely on simple tools, like a good grill pan and my mortar and pestle. I'm a solid believer in letting the food do most of the cooking. My idea of a fancy gadget is a good, sharp knife.
What's one thing that's always in your kitchen?
My dog, Arlo. He always sits smack in the center of the kitchen and watches me cook, waiting for a snack.
Ha! And what about in the food realm? What staples do you always keep on hand?
Olive oil, for sure. I always have a bunch of different ones — finishing oil from Morocco, central Italy, and Sicily, plus sometimes more everyday cooking oil from Morocco. I always have great sea salt and salt-packed anchovies, tons of raw nuts, preserved lemons, grains, and raw beans. From the fridge, we use a lot of Sriracha, yuzu koshu, kimchi, pickles, and citrus. And herbs, of course — but ideally, in season, I can get those straight out of the garden.
What garden plant do you rely on most?
Bay leaves. I may use other things like parsley or basil more often, but there really is nothing like fresh bay.
Your kitchen is also overflowing with cookbooks. What earns a cookbook a spot on your kitchen table?
Well, lots of books end up coming home with me, but the ones on the table depend on the season and what I'm most excited to learn (or relearn) about. I love looking at a bunch of different books at once, so I can compare many different ways of doing the same thing. It doesn't hurt if a book is beautiful, either!
Thanks for the visit, Renee and Arlo! Visit Renee at her Seattle restaurants. Or, for a virtual tour, page through her cookbook, A Boat, a Whale and a Walrus: Menus and Stories.